First published, to great acclaim, in 2015 we are delighted that Dr Stephen Brogan’s book is now available in paperback. And what a thing to read of now, in our time of social distancing: monarchs touching tens of thousands of people that they knew to be sick. Read on for the remarkable details…
During the Restoration period some 100,000 people were touched for scrofula by Charles II and James II. Each year at Easter, Whitsun, Michaelmas and Christmas public ceremonies were held at which the monarch laid hands on the scrofulous sores on the faces and necks of large numbers of supplicants, while a cleric from the Chapel Royal read aloud the healing liturgy around which proceedings were structured. Just as Christ had healed people by his touch, the hope was that the sovereign would cure those who had scrofula. Each ‘patient’ was given a commemorative gold coin, known then as an Angel and today as a touch-piece, which they were meant to wear around their neck in order to aid recovery in much the same way as an amulet. Originally a French ceremony dating from the early Middle Ages, the royal touch was adopted by the English crown in the thirteenth century although it was practised only intermittently until Henry VII codified its liturgy. But it was during the Restoration that greater numbers of people were touched, and with greater regularity, than at any other time. Whereas James VI and I had touched around 870 people each year, by the 1680s the average annual total had soared to 6,000.
To the twenty-first century reader, the royal touch can appear strange. Heads of state and political leaders no longer claim to be able to heal by touch. Even if such an assertion were made, presumably it would be met with disbelief in many quarters. In any case it is no longer usual for large crowds to assemble in order to access a curative treatment in public. A further issue is that the expectation today is that remedies should cure illnesses: even allowing that some diseases remain incurable, it is hard to see how the laying on of royal hands could actually heal scrofula. Indeed, the early modern apologists for the royal touch seem conflicted when discussing the efficacy of the royal touch: although it is often described as miraculous, mentions of immediate and complete cures are rare.
This book analyses the royal touch in its political, religious, medical and intellectual contexts in order to offer an explanation not just of why it was practised, but why the demand for it accelerated when it did. Themes that are examined include the ways in which the royal touch aggrandised the monarchy; the expectations that pre-modern people had of medicine; the aspects of the ceremony that were reformed in accordance with Protestant beliefs concerning ceremony and charms; reactions to the Civil War and regicide and their impact on the body politic; and the great efforts undertaken by the crown in order to try and control the huge demand for royal therapeutics. The book offers a detailed social history of the ceremony as practised during its Restoration heyday, drawing on administrative data, newspapers, eye witness accounts and printed images in order to evaluate who was touched, how people accessed the ceremony, the challenges of holding such a large, public event, and the retrospective assessments that were made of it. Overall, the book places the royal touch at the heart of early modern English life, shining light on both its broad appeal and the debates that it generated.
This guest post was written by Stephen Brogan, Visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he teaches early modern history.